Shame is a powerful emotion that has the potential to shape peoples’ lives in significant ways. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines shame as “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.” People who experience shame feel worthless, embarrassed, humiliated, and unclean.
People experience shame for a number of reasons. Shame is often felt when someone experiences, commits, or associates with a shameful act. Perhaps the most common precursor of shame is trauma. When something terrible happens to a person, they often feel a great deal of shame over what happened. Shame is also experienced by people who commit reprehensible crimes, live in addiction, or experience stigmatized mental illness.
Shame is so powerful that it can impact the whole trajectory of a person’s life. Because of shame’s power, it is important to understand the specific impact it has on people. It is important to consider the way out of shame.
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The Impact of Shame
Here are five ways shame shapes peoples’ lives.
- People who live with shame often avoid relationships, vulnerability, and community. Research shows that shame leads people to hide and self-conceal.[i] People who feel ashamed hide from community and friendship. They avoid vulnerability and never share their true selves with the world.
- People who live with shame are prone to suppressing their emotions. Shame is associated with suppression of emotions, particularly in women.[ii] People who feel ashamed of who they are or ashamed of something that happened to them often keep their thoughts and feelings wrapped up inside.
- People who live with shame often feel worthless, depressed, and anxious. Shame can be a contributing factor in depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.[iii] People who are constantly ashamed live out a difficult emotional and mental battle each and every day.
- People who live with shame are less likely to take healthy risks. One way that shame has been conceptualized is as “a defense against being devalued by others.”[iv] Shame keeps people from making decisions that would lead others to devalue them. Sometimes this leads to avoiding healthy risks. People who deal with shame sometimes only make decisions about jobs, relationships, and school that they feel certain will end well.
- People who live with shame are more likely to relapse back into problem behaviors. Research shows that people who struggle with alcoholism are more likely to relapse back into drinking if they experience shame. [v] People who are ashamed of their behavior sometimes purposefully continue in that behavior because they don’t believe that change or healing is possible. Shame can be the reason people choose not to take steps towards healing. People who live with shame believe they are worthless, and so they often begin to treat themselves as though they are worthless by engaging in behaviors that they know are bad for their health and well-being.
The Way Out of Shame
- Seek out relationships and commit to vulnerability with safe people. Do everything in your power to find community. Shame begins to disappear when it is shared in a safe place.
- Move out of your head and into the open. Don’t keep everything inside. Put your shame out into the world. Write about the shame. Share your story of shame. Create artwork that represents your shame. Shame finds healing when it is taken outside of ourselves and placed into the world in some way.
- Develop self-compassion. Consider what you would say to a friend who was feeling the same things you feel. Begin to respond to yourself with love and care and concern, just as you would respond to others with love and care and concern.
- Take one small risk. Attempt something that might end in failure. Do something that is difficult. You will either succeed and find hope that you can do more than you thought. Or, you might fail and realize that failure isn’t the end of the world. Either way, you begin to find healing for your shame.
- Believe that healing is possible. Make one good decision in the right direction and see how you feel. Believe that you can choose to make good choices over and over again until your life is completely changed.
One of the best places to take these steps is in counseling with a mental health professional. If shame is controlling your life, we can help. Reach out today. We are happy to help in any way we can.
[ii] Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F. & Caretti, V. (2016). Faces of shame: Implications for self-esteem, emotion regulation, aggression, and well-being. Journal of Psychology, 151(2)
[iii] Gilbert, P. (2000). The relationship of shame, social anxiety, and depression: The role of the evaluation of social rank. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7(3), 174-189.
[iv] Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across culture. Proceedings of the National Academcy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(10), 2625-2630
[v] Randles, D. & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholics. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(2)